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City appropriates $1 million from water, sewer fund to upgrade utility meter infrastructure

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — City council members on Tuesday appropriated $1 million from the 2020-21 water and sewer fund balance to upgrade 19,000 utility meter endpoints because the current technology is expected to be discontinued within the next year.

In January 2016, city council members approved a capital project ordinance in the amount of $7.2 million to purchase upgraded water meters, endpoints and the associated installation and technology. The city ultimately saved nearly $1 million as the total cost amounted to $6.24 million.

In May 2019, Salisbury-Rowan Utilities told the council 21,306 meters had been upgraded and were in operation, with an average increase of 4.2% in consumption and revenue due to the increased accuracy of the meters.

Before the 2016 upgrades, the city’s meters and endpoints utilized CDMA cellular technology (short for Code Division Multiple Access), which operates on 3G cellular networks. But recently manufactured endpoints now use LTE cellular technology. Meter data travels to meter endpoints and is then sent to the central SRU system using cellular technology.

The new meters and endpoints would operate on LTE-M technology, which separates the data transmission from the consumer cellular market. Meters and endpoints operating on CDMA technology provided hourly data intervals once a day, while the LTE-M network allows the endpoints to deliver 15-minute data intervals four times each day. As a result, the new endpoints would provide more details related to a customer’s water pressure, temperature as well as any leaks or issues much faster.

Colin Middaugh, with Badger Meter, Inc., said the need to quickly update the technology is primarily due to changes in the consumer cellular market, particularly T-Mobile’s purchase of Sprint in 2020 and subsequent commitment to provide 5G cellular services to rural areas in the near future. It’s currently predicted that the 3G network will be obsolete by the end of 2021 or 2022 at the latest.

Therefore, the upgrades allow the city to “be proactive rather than reactive,” Middaugh said.

Salisbury-Rowan Utilities Assistant Director Jason Wilson said the meters installed in 2016 have a 20-year life expectancy, but the endpoints that were installed have a 10-year life expectancy. That technology is now in its fifth year of operation.

Council member Brian Miller and Mayor Pro Tem Al Heggins questioned the technology’s relevance as the market continues to evolve. Middaugh explained that LTE technology is up to the 5G standard, and that the city wouldn’t need to face this same issue anytime soon.

“Fortunately, we saved almost a million dollars, or came in under budget on the original project,” Wilson said. “We’re here today asking for that back, essentially.” 

Heggins asked if now was the best time for the upgrades, citing concern for the city’s budget amid the pandemic. City Manager Lane Bailey said the water and sewer fund balance is sufficient enough to absorb the costs without resulting in an adverse effect on customers’ rates, though rates are based on inflation as well. Bailey added SRU saw a decline in the use of commercial utilities throughout the pandemic, but an increase in residential services as more people stayed home.

Wilson said when planning for the 2020-21 fiscal year budget, the sunset on changing technology wasn’t something they knew they needed to prepare for so quickly.

“(This) is why we put money back for this sort of purchase,” Miller said. “Obviously if the current existing technology we’ve got now is going to sunset, we’ve got to do something to keep it relevant for down the road or the investment we made is worthless.”

Wilson said the cost of the endpoints and the associated warranties total $585,000, with $415,000 estimated for the installment. A contract has not yet been executed. Additionally, Badger Meter is offering a discounted rate of $42.50 per meter endpoint, with an extended warranty cost of $25 per endpoint.

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

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